Toronto walks the line between American cultural osmosis and staunch northern independence and Torontonians embrace both worlds with multicultural open-mindedness.
As Canada's largest city and sixth largest government and home to a diverse population of about 2.7 million people, Toronto has won numerous awards for quality, innovation and efficiency in delivering public services. For the fourth consecutive year, the respected Economist Intelligence Unit's Liveability Report of 140 world cities has ranked Toronto in the Fourth place.
Toronto has absorbed waves of European, Latin American, Asian and Caribbean immigration. One in two Torontonians was born somewhere else, their transplanted cultures creating a patchwork of neighborhoods. Toronto is both unpretentious and complex.
This is a literary, artistic, musical town and Toronto's kitchens are as multicultural as its population. Korean walnut cakes, Italian espresso, Malaysian laksas and face-melting Indian curries.
Shopping here is wonderful, too. Rummage through the racks with the sharp-dressed locals. If shopping's not your bag, escape into the city's leafy ravines - full of raccoons and sweaty joggers - or day-trip down to Niagara's vineyards.
'Toronto the Good' is a friendly place. Courtesy prevails, but there's no shortage of subculture here: 'Clubland' gyrates towards the dawn, wine lists impress, bar stools wobble until 2am.
In 1998, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) 'Megacity' was born, the largest city in Canada and the fifth largest in North America – with a population close to four million people.
And so, as the CN Tower turns 30, it seems there is every reason for enthusiasm about Toronto's future. Today 50% of Torontonians have immigrated from somewhere else, bringing fresh ideas, perspectives and the riches of diversity to the city. More than 100 languages ricochet through the streets of an experimental city that's almost found its feet. The only constant here is change - Toronto is a city in evolution.
Before Europeans showed up, the Toronto area was home to indigenous tribes for 11,000 years.
In 1615, Etienne Brûlé arrived at the mouth of the Humber River on a mission for French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who had already founded a settlement at Québec. This site, at the convergence of several key trading and portage routes, became known as Toronto, a name possibly derived from a Mohawk name for a sacred fallen tree. The trade routes running north from here were historically used by First Nations tribes and later by French fur traders as shortcuts between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay or the upper inland lakes. It wasn't until around 1720, however, that the French were able to establish a permanent fur-trading post and mission near the Humber River. In 1750 they built Fort Rouillé - also known as Fort Toronto, on the site where Exhibition Place now stands - one in a series of forts set up to control navigation on the Great Lakes and links with the Mississippi River.
After years of hostility with the French on both sides of the Atlantic, the British took over all of New France, including the area around Toronto, under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Montréal had already been captured three years earlier. However, it wasn't until after the American Revolution that Loyalists fleeing the United States arrived and settlement began in earnest. The British paid £1700 to the Mississauga nation for the Toronto Land Purchase of 1787, four years later the provinces of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Québec) were created.
Throughout the Victorian era of the late 1800s, there was seemingly nothing but progress for Toronto. Eaton's and Simpson's department stores opened their doors on Yonge St, the city was wired for electricity and the first national exhibition was held. By the end of the century, more than 200, 000 folks called Toronto home. Masterpieces of Edwardian architecture emerged downtown, and the first Italian and Jewish immigrants arrived. Following the world trend, Toronto had a 'Great Fire' in 1849, but proceeded to have another one on 19 April, 1904. Starting at the C&S Currie neckwear factory at 58 Wellington St W, the blaze charred through 20 inner-city acres, leveling 100 buildings.
Around this time the city became known as 'Toronto the Good, ' a tag that only began to fade a few decades ago. Conservative politicians voted for prohibition (outlawing the production and sale of alcoholic beverages) and strong antivice laws (it was illegal to rent a horse on Sunday) that culminated in the Lord's Day Act of 1906. Eaton's department store drew its curtains to guard against 'sinful' window shopping, and city playgrounds were locked up. These antivice laws remained on the books until 1950.
Everything stopped short during the Depression era, sparking ethnic hostilities. Chinese immigration was banned, anti-Semitic riots exploded in Christie Pits Park and during WWII, Canada interned citizens of Japanese ancestry in camps, as did the USA.
After WWII the city breathed a huge sigh of relief. Thousands of European immigrants rolled into town, gifting the city with an influx of new tongues, customs and food. Enclaves like Kensington Market began showing signs of the cultural diversity that has become Toronto's trademark, while the Yonge St subway line opened in 1954 to shunt the burgeoning population from A to B. Toronto spread out in all directions (except south, of course), but in the 1960s people started moving back into the innercity and began restoring gracious old Victorian homes. Bohemian folk-music coffeehouses opened in Yorkville, patronized not least by US conscientious objectors looking to evade the clutches of the Vietnam War draft.
The building of the controversial new City Hall in 1965 really gave Toronto a boost into modernity. In the 1970s Portuguese, Chilean, Greek, Southeast Asian, Chinese and West Indian immigrants surfed into the city in waves, the redevelopment of the Harbourfront district began and new skyscrapers sprang up. Toronto finally overtook Montréal's population, becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in North America.
The city's optimism and civic pride expressed themselves in the building of the funky CN Tower in 1976, continuing right through the 1980s economic boom on Bay St and the city's sesquicentennial in 1984. However, not everyone shared the 'progressive' outlook of City Hall. In 1980 the 'Sandbar Bohemians' on Toronto Islands stood their ground against eviction by the municipal government, and won. And of course, the economy had to go bust sometime, which it did with a bang during the mid-'90s.
Places to Go
A jigsaw puzzle of distinctly flavored neighborhoods, Toronto only really makes sense when you view it as a whole. But who wants to do that? Half the fun of being here is pretending you’re eating noodles in Macau, wandering along a leafy Dublin backstreet or sipping ouzo in Athens. This is a city that takes the best of world cultures and delivers it to you in compact, neighborhood-sized pieces. Graze from ’hood to ’hood, focusing on the parts without trying to define the whole. Here are eleven of the best spots to browse.
What might be the world’s most multicultural city is made up of many little-known neighbourhoods. For Koreatown: go west on Bloor St, past the indie-flick fave Bloor Cinema and Honest Ed’s tack-tastic discount store, and you’ve hopped continents. Bilingual street signs help you find the chobab (sushi) bars and kimchi-serving canteens, or walk past the bright billboarded shopfronts and dip into the PAT Central Market to pick up unrecognisable vegetables and ready-to-mix bibimbap (mixed meal). Don’t miss a late-night trip to a noraebang – these Asian-style boothed karaoke bars will have you hollering ‘I Will Survive’ until the wee hours.
This funky spike remains every bit as cool and iconic as it was when it opened in 1976. Its primary function is as a radio and TV communications tower, but riding the great glass elevators up the highest freestanding structure (553m) in the world is one of those things in life you just have to do. On a clear day, the views from the Observation Deck are absolutely astounding. For extra thrills, tread lightly over the knee-trembling Glass Floor deck, or continue climbing an extra 101m to the uppermost SkyPod viewing area.
Air Canada Centre
Attending SIOP 2014 will allow you to attend the guided ‘inner workings’ tours of the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs (hockey) and Toronto Raptors (basketball) take you where the players go, even into the dressing room, sans players. But you’ll enjoy the hi-tech arena more if you can actually score tickets to a game. Tours run hourly, events permitting, highlighting remnants of the 1941 moderne Toronto Postal Delivery Building incorporated into the structure of the ACC, which opened for business in 1999.
Once upon a time, there were no Toronto Islands. There was only an immense sandbar. On April 13, 1858, a hurricane blasted through the sandbar, swallowed the hotel and created the gap now known as the Eastern Channel. Toronto’s jewel-like islands were born – nearly two-dozen isles covering 600 acres. When you visit the close-knit, 800-strong artistic communities on Algonquin Island and Ward’s Island, expect pangs of jealousy. They’ve got a peaceful, trusting, kid-safe community, little pollution, photogenic clusters of cottages among tall maples and incredible city skyline views.
Tattered around the edges, elegantly wasted Kensington Market is multicultural Toronto at its most authentic. Predictably, eating here is an absolute joy. Shopping here is also a blast; local specialties including fresh produce, baked goods, vintage duds and discount clothing. Lining the underbelly of Kensington Market is a seamy bohemian element. The streets are full of artists, urban hippies, punks, potheads, junkies, dealers, bikers, goths, musicians and anarchists. Shady characters on bicycles whisper their drug menus to you as they slide slowly past; hooch and Hendrix waft through the air. Graffiti says, ‘Resistance is Fertile!’ The streets simmer with a mildly menacing, hung-over vibe, but it’s rarely unsafe.
Royal Ontario Museum
ROM’s collections bounce between natural science, ancient civilization and art exhibits. The Chinese temple sculptures, Gallery of Korean Art and costumery and textile collections are some of the best in the world. Don’t miss the cedar crest poles carved by First Nations tribes in British Columbia; the largest pole (85m) was shipped from the West Coast by train, then lowered through the museum roof, leaving only centimeters to spare.
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
The new MOCCA, recently relocated from far northern Yonge St, is the city’s only museum mandated to collect and promote works by living Canadian visual artists. It says a lot about West Queen West’s consolidation as an arts and design strip that the museum chose this district for its new facility. The permanent holdings only number about 400 works, curated since 1985, but award-winning exhibitions focus on new artists from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
To residents, ‘The Beach’ is a neighborhood of wealthy professionals down by the lakeshore. To everyone else, including participants of SIOP 2014, it’s part of the beaches and the parklands along Lake Ontario. Development took off here during the ’70s and the onslaught of beachfront construction hasn’t stopped since. Fortunately, the side streets east of Woodbine Ave still have gardens bursting with colour and quaint lakeside houses. The three beaches themselves – Woodbine, Kew and Balmy – are great for sunbathing and picnicking.
The upper crust of Toronto’s districts, luxury – at a price – can be found at Bloor-Yorkville, dubbed Toronto’s ‘Mink Mile.’ Worth exploring, as some of Toronto’s most unique and specialized shops can be found in this area’s nooks and crannies.
Hockey Hall Of Fame
Inside an ornate, gray stone rococo Bank of Montréal building (c 1885), this shrine to the great game gives hockey fans everything they could possibly want. Check out the collection of Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque goalkeeping masks, attempt to stop Wayne Gretzky’s virtual shot or have your photo taken with hockey’s biggest prize – the hefty Stanley Cup. Even visitors unfamiliar with this superfast, ultraviolent sport will be impressed with the interactive multimedia exhibits and nostalgic hockey memorabilia, and might begin to comprehend Canada’s passion for hockey.
Art Gallery Of Ontario
The AGO’s art collections are excellent and extensive – unless you have a lot of stamina, you’ll need more than one trip to take it all in. The AGO’s continually expanding collection includes Australian Aboriginal art and a huge photographic collection, rare Québécois religious statuary, First Nations and Inuit carvings, major Canadian works by Emily Carr and the Group of Seven.
West Queen West
A two-kilometre strip that runs along Queen West between Bathurst Street and Gladstone Avenue. Since the creative types moved in, it has reinvented itself as the city’s art and design district. Over 300 galleries, design houses, shops, restaurants and boutique hotels now make up Toronto’s creative heart.
Get to know the neighbourhood with our recommendations:
Snag one of a handful of tables at Clafouti, a hole-in-the-wall patisserie cafe (915 Queen St West) to start the day with a roast beef and Emmental mini-baguette or a curried chicken salad sandwich on a petard. Don’t miss their clafoutis (custard tarts with seasonal fruit); wildberry, fig-grappa and strawberry-rhubarb are favorites. Grab a bag of lavender or saffron-ginger shortbread cookies to munch on until lunch.
Coffee and Quesadillas
Be kind to your belly and grab brunch at the Beaver (1192 Queen Street West). This one-time gallery now serves up 49th Parallel coffee, great baked goods, no-mess paninis and rockin’ signature dishes like the smoked chicken and apple quesadilla.
Nibble on Tapas
The tapas at Nyood are fresh, simple and served in a baroque-inspired high-ceilinged interior done up by local design stars Commute Home. Roger Mooking, a local celeb chef with his own show on the Food Network, conjures up nouveau Mediterranean fare such as Iberico ham flatbread with roasted figs and Zamorano cheese and malta braised short ribs. Don’t miss the signature Nyoodity cocktail.
Toronto’s art beat
To see what’s cooking on Toronto’s art circuit, head just steps away to the Museum of Modern Canadian Art (www.mocca.ca; closed Mon) at 952 Queen Street West, better known as MOCCA. This large and lively art space owned by the City of Toronto features up-to-the minute shows of contemporary art in an unstuffy environment. Best of all, it’s free (or pay what you can) – a rare treat in Toronto.
Ogle the frequently changing exhibits of Canadian and international photography at Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen Street West; www.bulgergallery.com; closed Sun and Mon). Don’t miss the free film screenings at 3pm on Saturdays in the mini-theatre on site. Spend some quiet time in the private viewing room browsing through the bric-a-brac of historic, vintage and contemporary images.
Art at The Drake Hotel
Check out the plugged-in contemporary art exhibits in the public areas of this hipster central hotel. Then browse the smart playful goodies, both vintage and new, at the Drake General Store, designed with reclaimed wood cabinetry, recycled fixtures (for sale too!) and found midcentury modern furniture. Check out the store’s art wall with monthly shows featuring up-and-coming Toronto artists.
Gallery-hop at an art hotel
Take a look at the on-site galleries at the art-themed Gladstone Hotel housed in a historic Victorian building. Or better still, stay the night. A different artist designed each of the 37 rooms of this edgy hideaway, revealing Toronto’s many faces.
To learn about the onsite venue hotel, The Sheraton Centre Toronto, watch the video below: